1 Timothy 1:12-17 – “I give thanks to Messiah Yeshua our Lord who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry – even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Messiah Yeshua.
This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Messiah Yeshua came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Messiah Yeshua might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life.”
Most people assume that the apostle Paul here is recognizing that his former lifestyle as a persecutor of the early believers was a shameful episode of his life that he continued to be repentant of. This is not an incorrect conclusion. However, if we look a little more deeply at the characteristics he mentions that he had displayed, we may come to a slightly richer answer.
Paul did mention he persecuted the early believing congregations, and of course this would be a heinous act to one who has come to know the truth of Messiah. But he also mentions he was a blasphemer. How could that be, since he was the strictest of the Pharisees, according to his own admission?
Acts 26:4-5 – “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. “They have known me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived as a Pharisee.
Philippians 3:4-6 – …If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; … regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.
If he was blameless according to the law, how could he have been a blasphemer? Well, today we think of blasphemy as speaking against God, something we could imagine a Pharisee would never do. However, the original Greek word carried a slightly broader meaning of slander toward sacred things or individuals who were of high authority, not just God alone. Timothy was accused of “blaspheming” against Moses and God (Acts 6:11). Peter likewise derides those false prophets among them who were callously slandering authority of “those having glory” whom even angels dared not bring accusations against (2 Peter 2:10-11).
Paul also mentioned he was an “arrogant man.” The Greek word can mean an insulter, or a violent maltreater. It is the root of where we get the English word “hubris,” meaning pride, but in a violent and potentially physically harmful way. Paul knew that Yeshua taught against both blasphemy and evil-acting pride as being negative qualities coming from the heart.
Mark 7:21-23 – “For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. “All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”
Paul knew that even though he was about as religious as he could be, his heart and his actions were still not right. When he came to know Messiah, he recognized that he was defiled because of these hateful and dangerous characteristics that were based in a divisive, arrogant theology mixed with traditions of men and superstitions. Everything he had worked for in his whole life: his status, his understanding of Israel in the world, his role as a teacher in the synagogues; everything had to be reevaluated and whatever was unnecessary needed to be ripped away in repentance and obedience to his Lord and Messiah.
Philippians 3:8-9 – I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Messiah Yeshua my Lord. Because of him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them as dung, so that I may gain Messiah and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Messiah – the righteousness from God based on faith.
Did Paul receive mercy and forgiveness because he was such a good person? Of course not, none of us has! Paul says he was shown mercy “so that in me, the worst of [sinners], Messiah Yeshua might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life.”
Isn’t that true for all of us who believe in Messiah? If we are being honest with ourselves, it is certainly not by anything we have done or gotten God’s attention for. We have been brought to faith in Messiah so that God can be shown to be the great and Merciful One who forgives even such as we were: faithless, ignorant and self-serving. And we are being changed, transformed into what he desires all people to be.
2 Corinthians 3:18 – We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Romans 12:2 – Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
Transforming the religious and ignorant and unbelieving into his image who accomplishes his will on the earth: this is what the life of a believer is all about. We just need to keep in mind, as Paul reminds us, to recognize how utterly destitute and harmful we were before knowing God and the power of new life in Messiah, and that all of this is solely for God’s glory and God’s kingdom.
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